Dog trainers, behavior consultants, vet behaviorists, oh my! When your puppy needs training or your dog has developed a behavior issue, it can be confusing to know which kind of professional you should contact. To complicate matters, dog training is currently an unregulated field, meaning that anyone can call him or herself a trainer or behavior expert with no substance to back it up.
If your only exposure to dog training has been through TV shows, you might be surprised to find that science-based, humane training methods are actually quite boring to watch. The goal of good training is to prevent and avoid conflict, not to let it happen and then "correct" the dog.
When looking for a dog trainer or behavior specialist, qualifications count. While there may be excellent dog trainers out there without any certifications or formal education, I always feel more comfortable knowing that a professional has made the effort to earn certain credentials. Let's break down the different kinds of trainers and behavior specialists, so you can find the right professional for your needs.
Dog Trainers: Keep it Positive
Dog trainers tend to focus on manners (obedience). Most trainers can help with puppy issues, such as house training and play biting, as well as all levels of manners. This could include your basic "sit, stay" type cues, tricks, and resolving issues like leash pulling and jumping on people. Some trainers specialize in areas such as therapy dog training.
There are few things that indicate a trainer is trustworthy and qualified. If you see CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA after the trainer’s name, this means the trainer has passed an assessment test that focuses on scientifically proven models of training, and also has at least 300 hours of hands-on dog training experience. To maintain certification, trainers must earn continuing education credits and promise to use safe and humane training methods. This certification is the real deal.
Other letters might indicate the dog training program from which a trainer graduated. For instance, KPA CTP is used by graduates of Karen Pryor Academy, and PMCT refers to Pat Miller Certified Trainers. Both of these programs emphasize positive training and show that the graduate has completed coursework in training theory and hands-on training. If you see letters you don’t recognize, the best thing to do is google them. If these letters refer to a specific dog training school or program, check the program’s website to read about its philosophy. Since positive training is backed by extensive research and can do no harm to your dog, I strongly encourage you to prioritize programs using positive methods.
There may be excellent trainers out there with no certification. Don't automatically rule them out, but look more deeply into the trainer's philosophy and experience. Does the trainer work closely with others who are certified? That's a good sign. Do they mention mentors? Does she/he have a social media presence, and if so, are you comfortable with what you see?
Take caution with trainers who promote themselves using words like "dominance," "corrections," "discipline," or even in some cases, "pack leader." This may indicate training methods that are outdated, based on myth, and potentially dangerous to your dog.
Also be wary of any trainer who guarantees results. Would your therapist, teacher, or doctor guarantee that he/she can "fix" your problems? No way! Programs that promise to fix obedience problems often use pain or fear to get results. A reputable trainer understands that success depends on many factors, and will approach your dog's training as a journey in communication, trust, and skill building... not force.
This is where things get a little messier. If your dog has an issue such as reactivity (aggression), fears or phobias, or separation anxiety, you should look for a professional who deals in behavior modification. In many cases, dog trainers (especially certified trainers) are also "behavior consultants" who are skilled in working with behavior issues. Before making an appointment with a particular trainer, check their website or email them to ensure your dog's issue is within their range of services.
A "certified behavior consultant" indicates a professional who has passed rigorous evaluations and earned certification in handling behavior issues. If you see the following letters after a person's name, you are in good hands: CDBC (IAABC), CBCC and CABC.
Some trainers and behavior consultants have APDT listed in their credentials. While it’s an excellent organization devoted to the education of trainers, membership does necessarily indicate proficiency.
If your dog has a serious behavior problem, you could consider a behaviorist. Any time a professional claims to be a behaviorist, it is important that there are credentials to prove it. First there are Veterinary Behaviorists (indicated by DACVB); they are vets and behavior consultants wrapped into one, and their services may be necessary when a dog's behavior issue has a medical cause or requires medical intervention. There are also Applied Animal Behaviorists (indicated by the letters CAAB or ACAAB), who hold advanced academic degrees. Behaviorists may be hard to find or out of some dog owners' price range.
Not All Opinions Are Created Equal
Keep in mind that everyone fancies themselves a dog training expert. Anyone who gives you free advice without first asking a slew of background questions is not in the position to give training advice, so please just smile and walk away. Even veterinarians, for whom I have a great deal of respect, are generally not given any formal training in animal behavior. So if you have a training or behavior question, seek the help of a qualified professional. This will ensure that both you and your dog are in good hands.
Want to learn more? I discuss this topic on AKC TV's Ask the Expert below.
This article originally ran on petguide.com.
Kate is a certified dog behavior consultant, certified dog trainer, certified dog parkour instructor, and award-winning author.
The views expressed on this website belong to Kate Naito and may not reflect the views of the agencies with which she trains.